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Homiletical Note

This last Sunday of Epiphany affords us one last occasion to hear and accept in the Transfiguration of Jesus another manifestation of God’s voice and presence before we begin our Lenten journey together. In this season we have heard the voice of God in various ways, often beyond national borders: through Second Isaiah to Israelites in exile affirming a servant community; through Elisha to the foreigner Naaman seeking healing; to all Jerusalem through Mark affirming Jesus as beloved Son at his baptism by John; through Jesus’ proclamation of God’s immanent presence in Mark’s gospel by means of healings, exorcisms, and calling of disciples. None of this happens in a vacuum. The Israelites are captive in Babylon; Elisha must follow God independent of Israel’s king; Jesus’ proclamation of the gospel is in contexts of human and demonic opposition. We might have read as a warning (in the RCL) what happens when someone refuses to heed the voice of God because they have predetermined what God’s voice should say in the case of Jonah who was told to go and preach to the inhabitants of Nineveh. Jonah had already decided (like Pat Robertson) that God was a god of retribution, not mercy, as far as foreigners were concerned. But God is determined to break through Jonah’s national insularity to demonstrate to Jonah compassion for the Ninevites and their cattle.

In the lectionary readings for today, the passage from I Kings 19 emphasizes how hard it is to discern God’s voice, even for a prophet and even in a place away from everything, on a mountaintop. There might be any number of reasons to make it harder, including second-guessing; Elijah is doubtless terrified—he has walked 40 days and nights and finally taken refuge from Jezebel in a cave at Mount Horeb. He declares himself to be the last living prophet in Israel. Mark’s account of the Transfiguration reports that Peter, like Elijah, is petrified by the vision on the mountain and, out of fear, proposes building temporary shelters. Fear is a natural response to the numinous and it appears throughout the gospel: the disciples are terrified at the waves’ obedient hearing of Jesus’ voice in 4:41, and the gospel ends with the fear and silence of the women upon hearing that Jesus has been raised (16:8). Even hearing God’s voice can lead to paralysis. But the Transfiguration is situated in the middle of the gospel’s journey to Jerusalem. The only way forward is to act on God’s word, even if it seems counterintuitive. God has tasks for Elijah, for Peter and the other disciples, and for the women at the empty tomb, and it is in these activities furthering God’s purposes that human doubts and fears will be overcome. Elijah is sent back to Israel to anoint a king of Israel, a king of Aram and his successor Elisha. Peter’s task and that of the other disciples is to discern the way Jesus’ Transfiguration affirms predictions of his suffering and death as Son of Man. The task of the women at the empty tomb is to proclaim to the other disciples and Peter that Jesus is not there—that he has been raised and has gone before them into Galilee where he will be seen.
Jesus enjoins the disciples to keep silent about the Transfiguration “until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” But in Mark, everything after 16:8 is added to the original ending. Visions make sense in retrospect. In our annual lectionary cycle, it is the Transfiguration that sets out the goal for our Lent, namely our participation in the passion and resurrection. It is the predicted resurrection that makes sense of the empty tomb. If our visions seem obscure, we must hold to them within in a wider context. It is this wider context that enables God’s purposes to be manifest. It is only this wider context that makes sense of a vision. The Transfiguration allows us to see what we cannot see at the time, namely, that it is God who is in charge of this wider context. Our task is to trust and obey the voice of God calling us back to the mission that is God’s, and not our own.

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